Inspired by the Huntscarth Clothing, Orkney Museum. Poems by Lydia Harris
The Orkney Museum is not only the islands’ treasure house that holds precious artefacts from prehistory and historical times, but is also a valuable resource for creativity. Many pieces have been reproduced as jewellery, artists sketch them, musicians drawn on a story as inspiration for a piece of music. It is also a gift for the poet. Lydia Harris contacted us regarding the Huntsgarth Clothing and her poetic response to it. They were discovered by George Spence while cutting peats in May 1968 and are all that is left of the burial of a child from sometime in the 18th century. As the burial was in peat the clothing survived, but the child’s body did not. All that was left was fine, fair hair, thought to have belonged to a child of around four years of age (this was also based on the size of the clothing). The clothes were made from good quality cloth, reused as a shroud for the child. A man’s bonnet was laid over the child’s face, While the clothing are now brown, stained by the peat, the bonnet would originally have been green. But who was this child and why was it buried in a peat bog and not in a kirkyard? These are questions that we cannot definitively answer.
My poetry pamphlet ‘A Small Space’ is to be published this summer by Paper Swans Press. It won first prize in the 2020 Paper Swans pamphlet competition. The poems it contains are inspired by the Huntscarth Clothing; clothes from 18th century child bog burial, on display at the Orkney Museum, Tankerness House.
The big Scots bonnet is what you notice first. Placed on the small plaid sleep suit, in a glass case upstairs, next to the lump of bog butter. When you read that these are a child’s burial clothes you are drawn into the long ago drama of death and burial in a peat bog far away from any human settlement.
You can’t knit a whole baby
but you can a bonnet.
You can’t knit the pulse in the fontanelle
but you can twine horsehair to one side.
No one can knit a chin,
but shrink wool to felt as proof against weather.
The yarn won’t form the space behind the eyes
You can start from the underside of the brim.
You can’t stop blood or flex muscles,
but you can increase the count.
You can’t knit a slowing pulse,
but you can decrease to five stitches
drawn together at the crown.
I have stood beside the Huntscarth clothing many times. Spent visits looking closely at the plaid garment, at the spiral of careful stitches in the bonnet. A S Henshall, distinguished archaeologist, wrote an account of the burial, noting the nature of the cloth and the style of the bonnet. She described the process of recording and preserving. Her article animated the find for me. I began to see the small body, the folks who gathered to bury it.
A. H’s Typewriter
ogles finger tips with fish eyes,
is bonsaied, tortured and espaliered.
AH’s typewriter is quietly spoken
with a hint of the north east,
well-oiled, its hidden places titillated
with bristles from the brush clipped in the lid.
The e is a half moon, occluded.
The space bar smells of pistons in an engine house.
It sounds like the upstairs dance class,
Grade Four tap, Tuesday evenings.
The more I read, the more I felt close to A S Henshall too. The final steps in my acquaintance with the clothing came when I explored the Lyde Road, first on the map and then in person. The burial was uncovered at the Harray end of that lovely track. I began to see the dead child amidst those hills, on the braes there, beside the burn.
Will I know the place again?
a hole dug in the peat bog
it can hardly be doubted, a child
a body could not be proved
it seems it lay on its back
arms across the chest
bonnet on top
I mentioned that the clothing is displayed next to a lump of bog butter. This is one of the wonders of museums. The way they offer context and insight. Bog butter is a mystery too. Why it was buried, even what it is! But all bog burials remind us that bog lands have long been understood as half way places. Entrances to other hidden worlds.
Lydia Harris lives in Westray and has published three poetry pamphlets. Her first full collection is to be published by Pindrop Press in 2022.
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